I've always had a hard time describing my taste in music. It's such a strange feeling to know very well what music I like and what music I don't, yet not feel able to describe it in words.
Music is art, but it seems easy to forget that these days. Sometimes, music doesn’t feel like art. It doesn’t sound like a piece of someone’s soul, like an artist put a piece of their heart into it. Music turns into noise if it doesn’t have substance and meaning.
There's a pattern I've discerned in the music that resonates with me. It revealed itself when I looked at the catalogues of two of my favorite bands - Anberlin and Skillet.
Anberlin has been my favorite band almost since the first time I heard their music. I was introduced to them first through their record “New Surrender,” their fourth studio album. I was surprised to learn recently that it is one of their least favorite records as a band, though that has more to do with the circumstances surrounding its recording process than the actual music itself.
One thing that makes Anberlin stand out is how complete their music is. Every song they release fits with them as a band and with the record it is part of. You can listen to any of their albums from top to bottom and never feel disconnected or disjointed, while the music also never feels boring or repetitive. Each album starts with a track that is a hard-hitting call to action, and ends with a piece that is reflective, thoughtful, and deep.
Even though they have recently said they are writing a new album, their catalogue up until they announced their retirement followed this pattern too. Their first record, “Blueprints for the Black Market,” was quintessential punk rock — full of fast, steady riffs and "us against the world" verses. Their final album, “Lowborn,” encapsulated their ponderous side while maintaining the deep rock that has always been their foundation.
This kind of musical storytelling on a grand scale is what hits me hardest. I love the complete cycle, the sense of finality. Individual songs may be wonderful, but true art happens when the structure of an album only enhances the emotion and depth of its parts. When we think of music as an art, I think we too often only think of Classical era music, when music really was used and seen in the same way as other artistic mediums like paintings and sculptures. I believe music never stopped being an art, but just became more accessible.
Skillet was my first true favorite band. The first big concert I ever went to was Skillet and TobyMac, and it was the event that really got me invested in music and being part of a band. Their albums “Awake,” “Comatose” and “Collide” were constantly running through my speakers throughout high school. Their work serves as the foundation for much of my musical experience — most of the songs I learned to play drums with were from those albums, and much of my current music knowledge and appreciation started with Skillet.
The three Skillet albums I mentioned each represent a unique part of their musical identity to me. “Collide” is heavy, gritty, and rough. “Comatose” is polished, emotional, and focused. “Awake” is anthemic, inspirational and imploring. The next album, “Rise,” maintains a sense of identity because it is a concept album - an album designed to be akin to a story, with snippets of connection between songs linking them all together. Other than that, Rise feels much like an extension of “Awake.” This is where Skillet started to lose the musical storytelling that makes music so artful.
Good art maintains a sense of uniqueness. If a piece of art looks, feels, or sounds too similar to another piece of art without adding any extra layers of meaning and depth, it doesn't carry any weight. "Not Gonna Die" by Skillet may be a good rock anthem on its own, but when "Awake and Alive" was only one album earlier (in the same place in the track order, in fact), the original loses its sparkle, its newness. When "I Want to Live" appears in the same spot in the next album, it just feels bland. The point isn't that any of these songs are inherently weak, but when they lose their individuality, the music feels more recycled and less inspired.
When I listen to Skillet's older records, I feel the emotion and passion they started with. When I listen to the music they make now, I feel disappointed that those feelings, to me, are vacant. Anberlin has a special place in my heart because to me, the band embodies what music as art truly means. When I listen to their music, it makes me feel. I can feel the passion that went into each song and album. I can feel the cathartic sadness in their last album, containing the strong and mixed emotions surrounding their decision to retire.
That's why when asked what kind of music I like, I don't know what to say. The relationship I have with music is deep, reflective and full of meaning.
From now on, if someone asks me, "Hey, what is your favorite kind of music?", I might respond with something like,
"Music that's art."